Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp. has been undertaking an ambitious plan to connect power grids across Asia in order to import electricity generated from renewable resources in the region.
The Asia Super Grid concept was put forward by Masayoshi Son, chairman and CEO of the leading Japanese telecommunications carrier, just after the major quake and Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011 that left the public demanding safer energy sources.
“Many people told me that it’s just too gigantic in scale to believe and impossible to achieve both on profit and technical grounds,” Son recalled at a Tokyo symposium in September.
And energy experts still point out significant challenges, spanning geopolitical and technical issues, in building a nexus of grids in Asia.
But they also note that it would be worth giving consideration to potential merits, including lowering the cost of electricity in Japan and even helping to eventually improve relations between the countries involved.
The ASG plan envisions sourcing electricity from wind farms in Mongolia and solar panels in India.
In Mongolia, Son said land has been secured in the Gobi Desert for the construction of facilities capable of generating over 7 gigawatts. The amount compares favorably with the 8.21 GW capacity of Japan’s largest Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power complex in Niigata Prefecture.
SoftBank said construction is under way on a 350 megawatt solar plant in India’s Andhra Pradesh state, with the company aiming to establish a 20 GW project in the country, eventually.
SoftBank also teamed up with State Grid Corporation of China, Korea Electric Power Corp. of South Korea, and Russia’s PJSC Rosseti in March this year to conduct research and planning on possible grid connections across Northeast Asian borders.
These energy grid companies and SoftBank are studying two potential routes — one from Mongolia to Japan via China and South Korea and the other via Russia — the whole of which Son calls the ASG’s “Golden Ring.”
The network would be connected to start electricity transmission by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics under the ASG plan.
Ryuichi Yokoyama, a professor emeritus at Waseda University and life fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, thinks SoftBank’s grid plan is “worth considering” in achieving Japan’s energy mix target.
Wind power-generated electricity from abroad will add “an option” to help stabilize the target mix set by the government, which also includes nuclear, natural gas, coal and oil, and renewables, he said.
“Even if it cut off, other sources can cover if the amount is around 2 million kilowatts,” he said in an interview in November. “I think it is technically feasible. It’s not something that should be ruled out from the start.”
Hiroshi Okamoto, president of the Tepco Research Institute, concurred in a separate interview in November that interlinking grids beyond borders would help to diversify Japan’s energy sources.
He also sees the benefit of moving the country toward a carbon-free future by “bringing electricity directly from overseas,” adding that profitability is key in such a project. SoftBank says the super grid would help lower Japan’s relatively high electricity prices.
Cross-border energy trade, however, raises security concerns including the threat that a country could cut off the flow of resources as a “weapon” when diplomatic tensions flare.
Yokoyama stressed that international grid connections assume cordial relationships between countries as well as political, economic and social stability in individual states.
He argued that some countries in Asia, such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines, do not meet those conditions, given the current territorial disputes among them.
The ASG concept does not rule out countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam for future inclusion, according to a SoftBank official.
Nobuo Tanaka, former executive director of the International Energy Agency, also underlined the importance of diversification of supply and routes in reducing security risks.
“If various supply routes are there, we can source (energy) from another route when one of them is stopped,” Tanaka, a former official of the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said in an interview in October.
Tanaka also sees interconnected grids beyond borders bringing interdependence among countries and contributing to increased stability to the region, citing an example of Europe, which started its postwar economic integration process from the joint management of coal and steel, leading to the European Union.
For East Asia, Tanaka said it is electricity that will be most needed mutually in the region. “I therefore believe it’s the first step toward peace in East Asia, to start joint management of electricity, to create a common market.
“If we can undertake joint management well, various mechanisms for peaceful coexistence in East Asia would be eventually built,” said Tanaka, now president of the nonprofit Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. He notes that it will not be an easy task, given the decades Europe took to achieve integration and the threat to it stemming from the upcoming exit of Britain from the union.
Turning to Japan, both Tanaka and Yokoyama underscored problems with the domestic power industry structure in sourcing electricity from abroad, and reforms are under way to legally separate transmission from generation at major utilities in the country by 2020.
“The biggest challenges are gaps in legislation concerning purchasing electricity from abroad,” Yokoyama said. The government needs to revise the law to enable cross-border trade of power, he points out.
Tanaka says one of the toughest problems is implementing strong reforms of Japan’s electricity market, controlled by regional power companies, in creating a uniform grid to share electricity in the country.
In what may be a rather bold step, he suggested that the nation’s largest utility, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., for instance, could divest its power generation unit to Kansai Electric Power Co. and Kansai could sell its transmission arm to Tepco.
“Tepco can engage in various forms of operations as a transmission company in a broader, connected Asian market,” he said.
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